Two Key Areas Students Should Learn Before Working in Industry

Michael Morello says students joining his team at PepsiCo could have had a better understanding of these areas
Building on your skills
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Did academia adequately prepare the chemists who joined your team at PepsiCo? Any glaring gaps that you and PepsiCo had to address to make the team more successful?

There were two general areas that that would have helped prepare chemists entering PepsiCo.

First is project management. That is, how to develop, communicate, and manage project plans. Getting project plans documented is critical, as time estimates can be greatly impacted by administrative tasks required in a large organization. Documenting project plans also helps the individual realize how much work they have, and setting realistic dates for deliverables ameliorates the tendency for distractions. 

Second is communicating, and the key role of the executive summary. The volume of information that is directed at industry leaders makes it critical to communicate in a concise manner. A strong executive summary might get your full report moved to a pile destined for further reading.  This is similar to a strong journal abstract, yet often requires a little more background and comments on impact to the business.

For a young person starting his or her first job in industry, what should they focus on in that critical first year?

Know the organization and work group style -- things like the purpose of meetings. In some organizations meetings are intended as open exchanges and true working sessions. In other organizations, meetings are intended to get final group consensus on decisions and plans that have been aligned and developed through a previous series of individual working sessions.

Develop an understanding of which aspect of project management - output, schedule, resources - is most critical to your work group. Sometimes more resources, for example, can be found to keep projects on time.

Develop an understanding of your role and the role of your supervisor in the organization. How much autonomy does your supervisor have? Remember your supervisor is the first in line to help with your development and in assessing your performance. Know the appropriate time to express your input. Don’t make things more challenging for your supervisor.

Honor your commitments, be sure to deliver on time, or be sure to communicate early if you are having challenges with meeting deadlines.

Keep up with company developments, especially leadership changes and within HR.

A common observation is that mid-career chemists working in industry encounter challenges today that didn’t exist 15-20 years ago. Do you agree? What’s the source of those challenges? And what can these mid-career chemists do to mitigate them?

I strongly agree with this observation, yet I don’t think it relates solely to chemists. The one challenge society faces as a whole is the pace of change. Thomas Friedman articulates this in his book “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.”

If we think of this from the chemist’s perspective, how has the pace of creative destruction modified how work is performed? What was done in the lab 20 years ago that is now automated? How many chemists would it have taken to provide a DNA profile that you can now purchase by sending a sample though the mail? If we think of the role advanced instrumentation has played on reducing the time it takes to complete a project, this provides some insight on what chemists must do to stay current. Hence, it is critical to stay up to date with the latest technology.

The pace of change also impacts core business. As creative destruction replaces a given chemistry or chemistry sector, it will have an impact on employment. To be prepared, it is critical to keep up with adjacent - emerging areas that can leverage the skilled chemist. An evolving example is the whole area of cannabis and cannabis products. As legal constraints are being eliminated, there will be a need for chemists to ensure quality and safety. It would not be surprising if this creates opportunities for food chemists who are familiar with standard analysis methodologies and how these are applied to meet regulatory and safety requirements.

How did your parents influence your leadership style?

I was fortunate to grow up in a traditional household with both parents. Their influence was primarily by example, instilling in me the value of hard work and that being employed was a privilege.

Looking back, I also had the benefit of growing up in a fairly ethnically diverse community. Family friends and neighbors represented this diversity, and I learned both respect and appreciation for the different cultures. This background was also one where everyone proactively helped each other. As I reflect on my leadership style, I think I tried to be proactively helpful, to be respectful of others, to work hard, and to lead by example.   

You managed a group for decades at PepsiCo before retiring recently. You worked with your team to help them understand the difference between data and results. How did you coach them on that subject?

I look at this as a multistep process that occurs during career progression. It was critical to have early-junior career personnel focus on data, especially limits of detection, limits of quantitation, precision, and accuracy.

As associates progressed we would start to build a story on what the data inferred. That is, could the data be used to illustrate a class of reactions occurring in the food or beverage, did these reactions make sense from a stoichiometric perspective, if not, how might we explain observed changes? 

This required extension of core analytical chemistry skills to application of food-, organic-, bio-chemistry, etc. skills and knowledge. The process also required building the junior chemist’s confidence in their data, so that they would feel comfortable shifting from describing the data to focusing on how they interpret the data and how this interpretation or result could drive change or serve as the basis of a new hypothesis. 

Guiding the extension of chemistry skills required an understanding of the individual’s skills, core values and career aspirations in order to help provide developmental assignments that gave them exposure and inspiration to expand their capabilities.

Why did you spend countless hours volunteering on behalf of ACS? And did it help you personally and professionally?

My involvement with ACS started in graduate school, and it was primarily a means to get access to journals at a reduced cost. I became actively involved with ACS when I chose a position with the Quaker Oats Company and found the Agricultural and Food Chemistry Division (AGFD) was highly aligned with the challenges I faced as a chemist in a food company.

The opportunity to interact with leaders in the field drove my further involvement with AGFD, which led to friendships and a strong sense of community. AGFD has a long standing tradition of rotating the chair through academia, government, and industry. As a participating member of industry, I felt a strong obligation and desire to accept the leadership opportunity provided through AGFD. The training afforded by ACS for division leaders opened my eyes to the magnitude of ACS and shared goals and comradery of chemists from other divisions.

When the opportunity to serve as councilor for AGFD was presented, this enabled further service to AGFD and to advocate for the great chemistry being executed by members in our mid-size division. Serving as an advocate for AGFD enabled me to interact with many of the thought leaders in the broader field of chemistry, which has served as inspiration and reinvigorated my passion for chemistry.

It also instilled a great appreciation for the dedication and commitment on the part of the phenomenal staff at ACS. Volunteering with ACS provided me with leadership opportunities and training that expanded my skills and provided experiences to help prepare me for professional advancement. Of particular note, volunteering with leaders from academia and government helped build skills in working with individuals with different styles and different project management priorities.

Final question, Mike: Setting aside health and nutrition issues for a moment, what’s your favorite PepsiCo snack and beverage? 

This is a tough question. PepsiCo has a number of great products, and my favorites tend to be situational. For breakfast, this would be a combination of Sol Gryn - a highly toasted oatmeal produced in Scotland, and Tropicana Pure Premium Orange Juice, especially in the May-July time frame. Following exercise or other vigorous activity, hands down it is Citrus Cooler Gatorade. When chill-laxing, this would be Diet Pepsi (in cans) and Reduced Fat Ruffles, which are based on my flavor preferences rather than trade-offs for caloric reasons. 

Michael Morello, Retired R&D Director Analytical Sciences: Volatile Flavor Analysis/Global R&D Fellow, PepsiCo
Michael Morello, Retired R&D Director Analytical Sciences: Volatile Flavor Analysis/Global R&D Fellow, PepsiCo

Michael (Mike) Morello was R&D Director Analytical Sciences: Volatile Flavor Analysis/Global R&D Fellow for PepsiCo. Mike and his team leveraged GC-MS and associated techniques to isolate and analyze volatile flavor compounds from beverages and foods. Mike earned his M.S. in Organic Chemistry from Iowa State University and his B.S. in Chemistry from Worcester State College. He was a past chair and councilor for the Agricultural and Food Chemistry Division, and was selected ACS Fellow in 2013. 

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

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